Trouble in paradise and returning to Bali
We’d been in the Northern Mentawai’s for a few weeks. The surf had been remarkably consistent and there had been good waves just about every day. Unfortunately, just to prove human nature remains flawed, there was an element of surf apathy settling in.
Our surf camp accommodation was definitely part of the problem. Getting a cheap deal had seemed like such a good idea when we were planning the trip. We were paying about $50 a day, which is practically nothing when compared with most options up in the Ments. And, to be honest, the bedding and the food was actually not that bad. But we were all running a bit short on sleep. The generator was turned off during the day, which meant there was no fan to help cool things down. Occasionally a storm would blow up and send through a pleasant fresh breeze. More often a sultry haze would settle in. Trying to get an afternoon snooze in these conditions was like trying to sleep in a sauna.
The traditional Indonesian cuisine was also decent enough. I’ve certainly tasted worse Nasi Goreng. But after a few straight weeks of fried rice and noodles, a lingering form of culinary monotony was taking hold. I probably sound like I am complaining about nothing? Indeed, I actually think our biggest problem was that we were all approaching 40, and that we were getting collectively softer in older age. Everyone had done long stints in budget surf camps in the past. What this trip highlighted, was that long stints in budget surf camps should probably remain a thing of the past.
The vibe around the camp had also begun to sour. There was a small group of us living in fairly close quarters. We literally hailed from four different corners of the globe, and there had been warm greetings for all on arrival. Everyone was obviously excited to surf world class waves minus the crowds. And there was a real comradery in the beginning. We would analyse swell and wind forecasts every evening and together discuss options for the following day. Boat trips were organised; hikes across the island were planned. We bonded over perfect sessions with just us in the water, trading flawless waves and hooting each other into barrels. But as is so often the case, human nature would once again intervene.
A pleasant afternoon sipping lukewarm Bintangs turned south unexpectedly, when a passing comment was made about someone doing sneaky paddles up the inside. There was a stern retort concerning more serious allegations of pulling back and missing waves. Voices were raised and bad surf boat etiquette was insinuated. Evidently someone had become unhappy when a decision was made to leave good but relatively crowded waves in search or somewhere quieter. There was an immediate counter claim regarding a certain surfer who had travelled to the land of the lefts, but only wanted to surf rights. The peacemaker within the group spoke up and attempted to calm the situation. But the damage had been done. The rest of the afternoon’s beers were consumed in a brooding silence, and our small commune of surf soaked good vibes would never be the same again.
The trip continued, and another solid swell rolled through, barely giving us a chance to rest tired shoulders. As it filled in from the south, Rifles slowly began to show form. We paddled out to a lumpy confused lineup and tried to find the take off amongst disorganised walls. Conditions slowly began to clean up as the wind shifted, and we were blessed with a few sets that reeled mechanically for several hundred metres. It’s really had to describe a wave like that and even come close to doing it justice. There is just something so very special about pumping hard down the line, while watching a section ahead start to really drain off the reef. Those long winding barrels can be completely mesmerising, especially when you come bursting out into bright dazzling sunshine.
The paddle back up the point was a long one, and I’d only managed to find one or two decent waves before the boats started arriving. It was like every able-bodied surfer in the area had been waiting for Rifles to turn on. There was soon a solid crew in the lineup, which was a bit of a shock after weeks of mostly empty sessions. Conditions continued to improve and being patient was not easy. I sat closer in and picked off some fun shoulder high runners before being caught out by a hulking clean up set. Panicked fear was taking hold as a giant wall of ocean stood up and exploded just ahead. I did a desperate dive for the bottom, but couldn’t help pausing to admire the coral on the reef. I was almost consumed by a beautiful vision of multi-coloured tropical splendour as I frantically swam for a shallow channel, somehow managing to avoid a serious beating in the process.
Yet another swell shaped up with a few days to go. But just to prove that the Mentawai’s isn’t absolutely perfect all the time, this one failed to deliver. It came in well below forecast and was plagued with stormy winds and rain. We sat out the last two days in our leaky accommodation as the rain beat down, turning most of the surrounding area into a mosquito-infested swamp. Nasi Goreng was again on the menu as we sat down for our final dinner together. The general feeling was that it had been the trip of a lifetime, but everyone was completely surfed out and seemed happy to be heading back to civilisation.
Travel back to Padang the next day took many hours, and involved long periods swaying uncomfortably on various ocean-going vessels. We docked, dragged our board bags through the crowds at the port, then found our pick up. We were soon walking purposefully into a western restaurant, where we ordered up pizza, hamburgers, steak and frosty cold beers. We basically ate anything on the menu that didn’t contain fried rice or noodles.
Getting to the airport was a priority the following morning, and we managed to stay on track as we negotiated the COVID rapid test process. All our results came back negative, so we celebrated by finding the solitary restaurant at Padang airport that sold Bintang, before drinking the entire fridge dry. The remainder of our travel passed by in beery haze of mild dehydration.
The situation back in Bali had continued to change while we were away. Indonesian Immigration had made a snap announcement around the re-introduction of visa’s. This had sent many temporary expats into a confused panic and many had decided it might be best to finally return home. I paddled out to pumping Ulu’s one afternoon, and there were less than ten people in the water. I stared back up at the empty warungs on the cliffs, then at the empty ocean around me, and shook my head. For those of us lucky enough to be stuck in Indonesia, this season would be talked about for years to come. I surfed until dusk, before making my way back up through the cave. Then sat down for a Nasi Goreng and lukewarm Bintang to celebrate.
If you enjoyed the writing above, you might also like a book I recently published…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers